Sunday, March 22, 2009

Art as an Old Friend

Last night I watched Peter Weir’s The Last Wave with Sudi. He is taking a class in world literature (senior English) and they are studying Australia and NZ. When we were looking for a book for him to read for class, I started thinking about The Last Wave. So I ordered it from Netflix. Peter Weir says he was interested in making a film about a scientific-minded man who has a premonition. That’s exactly what happens. This Anglo man (played by Richard Chamberlain) has dreams about a cataclysmic disaster. They make no sense to him and he goes on a quest to figure them out. The famous aborigine actor Gulpilil eventually gives him the key to understanding, but it’s too late for him to act on his premonition by then. I could certainly watch Gulpilil on the screen all day, he’s so beautiful (you may remember him from Walkabout). When Sudi first saw the aborigines in the film, he commented, “Wow, I’ve never seen anyone who looks like that.” They are certainly unusual. Dark indigenous people. Very dark. Sudi loved the ambient sound of the film, made from water noises, distorted human voices, and a suspense-building digeridoo.

The film was made in 1977 and I loved it when I saw it when it first came out. (Click here to see the trailer.) My favorite moment is when Chamberlain warns Gulpilil that he’s in big trouble, because he is mixed up in a murder case. Gulpilil responds, “No, you are in big trouble. You don’t know what dreams are anymore.” Aborigines believe that everything happens in two dimensions at once, practical time (real world) and “dreamtime” (spirit world). Chamberlain’s character opens a portal into dreamtime, but he can’t make any sense of what he sees there because he is too out of touch with spirit and, in fact, has never allowed himself to “believe” it exists. Instead of opening to possibility, he is terrified of the mystery.

Seeing the film again was like visiting with an old friend. A friend with whom I spent a lot of time once but who, through geography and life choices, has become distant. Then when I see this friend again, and sit down for a good few hours, visit, talk, laugh, I remember exactly why I love her/him so much. I am reminded of a similar experience with a painting. In 1985, the art museum in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, brought a retrospective of Impressionist paintings over from Paris. Ron and I and some of our friends from Berkeley went to the exhibit together. I had last seen many of these paintings while traveling through Europe as a student in the mid-70s. In 1985, a young mom, with my baby girl in a carry-pack on my back, I wandered through the exhibit looking at these same paintings I had loved when I saw them for the first time at the Jeu de Paume. Interestingly, the Impressionist paintings were originally placed in the Jeu de Paume because the established French art world considered them too avant-garde for the Louvre. Maybe a passing fad. They didn’t want to put any of them in the Louvre, so they made a separate museum for them, and that’s where they remain to this day.

One Impressionist painting in particular, of carpenters refinishing a wood floor, captured my imagination. It is The Floor-scrapers by Gustave Caillebotte. The light in the painting is extraordinary, quite impossible to replicate in any reproduction. For me, it was the quintessential Impressionist mastery of depicting light in painting, and therefore the heart and soul of the Impressionist movement. Seeing the original painting again was like visiting with a dear friend after many years apart, same as watching The Last Wave.

Art as an old friend.

Here’s the Caillebotte:

1 comment:

USelaine said...

Oh, The Last Wave is one of my favorites! (I even have it on my F***B**k profile list).

Your painting choice reminds me of the young women ironing by Degas. Wonderful.